"I consider this an extreme bird watching study," said Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technician for the Forest Service.
For the Birds - A look at 'extreme' birding 061213 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly "I consider this an extreme bird watching study," said Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technician for the Forest Service.

Photo Courtesy Of The United States Forest Service

A hatch of Orange-crowned Warbler eggs rest in it nest. This bird is a species commonly encountered during birdcount research in the Tongass National Forest.

Photo Courtesy Of The United States Forest Service

Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technician with the Forest Service, works on a bird count study in the Tongass National Forest.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Story last updated at 6/12/2013 - 2:06 pm

For the Birds - A look at 'extreme' birding

"I consider this an extreme bird watching study," said Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technician for the Forest Service.

She's referring to the Alaska Landbird Monitoring System (ALMS), a statewide effort to monitor the breeding landbirds in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests. And Baluss would know an extreme animal observation situation.

She graduated from Humboldt State University with a double major in zoology and cellular-molecular biology. Baluss had intentions of working in wildlife veterinary science, but wanted to be out in the field more. She took seasonal biologist positions in Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Oregon and in Latin America. Baluss ended up in Juneau in the summer of 1998 to work as a seasonal wildlife technician for the Forest Service. She's still here, and she's gone extreme.

Baluss has been working each summer on the ALMS project since the data collection started, 10 seasons ago. The project is an outgrowth of the Boreal Partners in Flight, a state group who recognized research priorities for bird monitoring, particularly migratory birds.

There are two main objectives of the project. The first is to collect enough baseline information in order to predict long-term trends, like whether there are severe declines in specific populations, for example.

"The second (goal) is to get better objective data about the habitat preferences for the species that we monitor," Baluss said.

To address the project objectives, 17 one-by-one kilometer sites were selected by random across the Tongass. Within each plot are 25 pre-designated spots where the data is collected. Baluss said the target is to cover half of the plots yearly.

"Alaska has a fairly unique situation with its bird monitoring, in that it is a huge area to cover to get some statistical validity; things get crazy fast."

Baluss starts her work at the beginning of each summer. She said there are two people with the Forest Service in the Southeast who have the specialized experience to perform the plot surveys. Melissa Cady, who lives on Prince of Wales Island, is the second, and occasionally a third person is trained, though Baluss covers most of the eight to nine survey blocks targeted each summer.

For safety, the plots are surveyed by teams of two, the second person acting mostly as a body guard.

"Down in the southern portion of the (Tongass) there are mainly black bears and you can get by with bear spray," Baluss said. "But on Admiralty (Island) you're walking with an elephant gun, basically. It's nice to have a partner so you don't have to carry it."

She said the field partners are generally Forest Service employees, but community members from around the region can sign up as volunteers and assist.

One work week is generally reserved for each plot study.

"It takes a lot of effort to get to some of the sites," Baluss said. "Boating, float planes, helicopters, sometimes hiking long ways."

She said the teams steer away from backpacking over land too much, as most of the plots are trail-less, and walking from an access point to the plot can be too inefficient.

Using a GPS unit, the team hits up 25 points within each square kilometer plot. They spend 10 minutes at each point, counting the number of birds they see and, mostly, hear.

"In the heavily forested environment they're difficult to see," she said. "The vast majority we hear and not see. You have to be a proficient bird watcher, especially for birding by ear. (We) have to be able to be able to identity all the bird species in Southeast Alaska by their songs or calls."

The species that Baluss encounters most often include forest-dependent birds like Hermit Thrushes, Golden-crown Kinglets, Varied Thrushes, Townsends' Warblers and Chestnut-backed Chickadees.

"The Tongass is also interested in certain species that are dependent on old growth forest like the Red-Breasted Sap Sucker, the Brown Creeper and the Hairy Woodpecker," Baluss said.

The bird counters also conduct assessments of the plant communities at each point in each plot. They make notes on the vegetation from the trees to the groundcover.

"I note the dominant plants," Baluss said. "I don't need to know every moss, but what a bird would care about, the main tree species, how much cover there is, main shrub species, structural features, distances to water. Is there a pond or a stream? Things that make a difference to a bird."

These notes are to address the ALMS project's second objective, figuring out the habitat associations.

This summer will be the project's 10th season, and Baluss said that's just at the point where they can start work on some data analysis. She said the Unites States Geological Survey keeps the data, and the analysis will be a collaborative effort.

The information collected will serve as a barometer on how well the current management practices are meeting the needs of songbirds.

"If you don't have any monitoring, you really don't know what is going on," Baluss said. "You have to get out there and check it out."

Baluss said that if deleterious trends or concerns are identified, the Forest Service will look towards partnering with departments to the south, along the birds' migratory paths.

"I have a strong interest in bird conservation," Baluss said. "I hope the project continues so we get better long-term trend information."